Vol 2 No 28 - 2005
Why we should honour Jim Burns, and how I came to
There has been a prejudice around for a long time in many quarters that, to be any good, poetry needs to be not quite comprehensible. Personally, I'm not against all ‘difficult’ writing: some poetry, like any other form of communication, has to be difficult because its subject is difficult, and because communication can be seen, fairly enough, as a less straightforward business than we sometimes wish it were. But I am against writing that seems to cultivate inscrutability just for the sake of appearing more profound than it really is. It’s hard not to suspect that this is true of some of the poetry that wins prizes and appears in the more establishment magazines.
And I am against the tendency to undervalue good writing, including good poetry, simply because the writer has been one of those blessed with the great gift of putting subtle, complex and important things in simple and accessible language. I’m quite sure that this prejudice exists, and that people who have trained themselves to master elaborate linguistic strategies and specialist vocabulary sometimes look suspiciously at anyone who doesn’t play that game. Surely it must be naive and shallow if it’s so ‘easy’? Well, no, it doesn’t have to be.
As poets go, especially poets who publish mainly in the small press and little magazine scene, Jim Burns is a well-known and popular poet. But then a well known poet is one with a few hundred readers, and Jim’s poems aren’t published by Faber and the like, aren’t printed in the establishment magazines, and only rarely performed on national radio and television or reviewed in the broadsheets. So the people who get their knowledge of what’s going on in poetry from mainstream media are unlikely to come across him. Is this because he is not a good enough writer for greater visibility, or is it because he has that great knack of writing simply and clearly? Not to mention that he is from the north of England and has stayed living there, though he has travelled quite a bit; that his origins are working-class, and his cultural orientation consciously out of step with southern, middle-class, university-influenced culture, being instead cosmopolitan and wide-ranging with a particular emphasis on jazz, American writing, and the relation of the arts to left-leaning political commitment in twentieth-century history worldwide.
Here’s a poem Jim wrote and published when New Labour came to power in 1997. It shocked me at the time, because I, like many others, persuaded myself that at least some important things would change for the better. (Perhaps some have; that’s too long an argument to have just here.) But Jim seemed to be one of those wet blankets who insisted that there was nothing whatever to celebrate.
Power to the People
And the people voted in a new government,
but it wasn’t much different from the old one,
so nothing really happened,
except that down in the City something stirred,
and in Whitehall the mandarins
held more meetings, and thought of ways
to keep things as they were.
The poor were still poor,
and the rich were still rich,
the police still did what they had to do,
and the bureaucrats as little as possible,
while businessmen moved their money abroad,
and jobs continued to disappear,
until a few years later there was an election,
and the people voted in a new government.
This poem troubled me by its pessimism, and perhaps I allowed myself to think that its ironically folksy humour, its parable-like quality, oversimplified something that was irreducibly complex. Then a few weeks ago (to be exact, on 5 July 2004) I read this in an article in The Guardian by Larry Elliott, its economic editor:
So here’s a paradox for you. The Labour party’s roots lie
in the industrial revolution of the 19th century, and in the
dark days of the 80s it was driven back into its northern
powerbase, where it licked its wounds and regrouped. Most of
the senior members of the cabinet —Blair, Brown, Jack Straw,
David Blunkett— have their seats in what we still call the north.
Yet under Labour, 700, 000 jobs in manufacturing have gone,
the north-south divide has widened, and the City wields more
power and influence in Westminster and Whitehall than ever.
London is awash with buy-to-let schemes, where those with
big City bonuses have been able to snap up property and rent
it to those who have been priced out of the market.
‘Down in the City something stirred’ in Jim’s poem sounds vague and parodic, and the whole thing could be read as a piece of reflex agin-the-government cynicism; but I see it as the result of long years of observation and experience, and of consistent study of history, politics, and current events, leading to an analysis that in essence is the same as Larry Elliott’s, except that it was written, prophetically, seven years earlier.
I’ve just looked up the first publication in which I came across Jim Burns. It was a 48-page magazine, just out: Grosseteste Review, it says on the cover, and below: ‘vo1.I, no.I Spring 1968.’ Edited by Tim Longville, it combined Cambridge sophistication (earlyish work from John Riley, John Hall, J H Prynne) with an opening towards America, following the pioneer work done by Gael Turnbull, also a contributor, exemplified by three reviews of Carl Rakosi’s Amulet. (Both Rakosi and Turnbull died in 2004.)
From Jim Burns there is an article called ‘Forgotten Expatriates’, a densely informative and soberly enthusiastic piece about the hard- drinking Robert McAlmon and others in the Paris of the 1920s. It ends with what I later came to know was a favourite quotation of Jim’s from Edward Dahlberg: ‘We tolerate so many mediocrities but cannot forgive an unusual man. One should save one’s stones for the mercenaries of letters, and not cast them at a broken Ishmael of truth.’
It may be one of the worst clichés of fiction and biography, but it does seem apt to say that ‘little did I know, reading this article…’ that one day I would read so many of them in magazines, and in photocopies sent me by Jim himself, that I would begin to suggest to him that he should gather a selection of them into a book, and that I would end up heavily involved in getting such a book published (Beats, Bohemians and Intellectuals: Trent Editions, Nottingham, 2001). And since the book was published the articles have gone on unabated, in GTJ among many other places. Just in today’s post (28.7.04: I’m not making this up) along with a short covering letter, have come reviews of seven poetry books, an article of several thousand words on ‘Jack Micheline, Poet of Protest’, and a shorter article on the jazz pianist Tommy Pollard.
But back to that first issue of Grosseteste Review. It’s typical of Jim that he had ‘creative’ and critical work in the same magazine, and the other piece was a short prose paragraph (does it deserve to be called a prose poem? Yes, why not?) called ‘Fascist’, and this is it:
Things were pretty bad round here in the 1930s and a lot of
people were out of work. Nearly everyone I knew when I was a
kid could tell you stories about hanging around outside factories,
and being insulted at the Labour Exchange, and how they’d
somehow managed to scrape a few coppers together to buy
food each week. I always understood why they voted Labour
like they did, but it was a surprise to find someone who admitted
to going to Fascist meetings. He was an elderly man, and of
course, I started to say, well wasn’t he ashamed and so on. He
smiled and let me finish and then he said, ‘Why, I never believed
in what they talked about, or voted anything else but Labour. It
was just that they used to give black shirts out for free and in
those days a black shirt was better than none at all.’
This was the voice I got to know in other poems and stories by Jim in early issues of that magazine, and in some of Jim’s first books that the magazine alerted me to. It had a double-distilled authenticity of closeness to some thing or things in short supply among good writers then as now, and all the more refreshing in the context of Grosseteste (all credit to Longville, among others, for recognizing it and for championing Burns): the reality of physical and economic stress, the implicit solidarity of the oppressed, a sense of community of political faith, and of mutuality in hardship. (We recognise the ‘I’ of ‘Fascist’ as possessing this authenticity, because he grew up ‘round here’: but he tells a wryly humorous story against himself, ignorantly reproving an even more ‘authentic’ veteran, who then gives him a gentle lesson in reality. As I say, double-distilled.)
Why did this short piece, and others written out of the same sort of experience, appeal to me so much? I think we recognize a kind of dignity that habitual struggle against a harsh reality can give to whole communities of people, without it needing to mean that they are all saints or incapable of destructive behaviour towards themselves and others. It excites our sympathy and respect and maybe, too, it makes them appeal to the artistic imagination: the stress they are under reveals the human predicament they exemplify with a resonance beyond their time and place.
I suppose all this contributed to my liking for Jim’s work, and his down to earth clarity of language, combined with an unobtrusive artistic grace and a humanity that comes from its closeness to speech, appealed to me then as it does now. But if I thought then that Jim’s ‘authentic’ relationship to his working-class origins made his social and existential position less puzzling than my own, I have long realised that this isn’t necessarily so.
In fact, the ironies and complexities of Jim’s own relationship to various social contexts are an important theme in his writing, as is already evident —at least with hindsight— in ‘Fascist’. He may have worked in factories and offices and the army, and he may still live in Lancashire, but his teenage ‘discovery of bebop,/that decadent American music’ (‘Confessions of an Old Believer’) alienated him from more than the Communist Party he was leaving anyway. By his own account (in the essay ‘The American Influence’) , it was jazz that led him to American poetry and novels and so to a life of writing and reading, and an interest in Beats and bohemians as well as labour history, the Wobblies, the Russian Revolution and the Spanish Civil War.
George Oppen, the American poet (1908-84), quotes another poet’s letter to him as asking ‘whether, as the intensity of seeing increases, one’s distance from Them, the people, does not also increase.’ Oppen implicitly acknowledges the force of the question, and yet refuses to ‘talk/ Distantly of “The People”, remembering the hardships and dangers shared with the unemployed in the Depression, and with fellow-soldiers during World War II. (‘Of Being Numerous.’) A similar doubleness of response characterises Burns’s writing, and like Oppen he has written ruefully of the way many of the old poor, or their descendants, have been seduced by consumerism and the triviality and endless ‘entertainment’ of a commercialised culture. Still believing in the value and dignity of past struggles for survival and bearable conditions, honouring courage and decency wherever they find it, both poets find themselves in later years solitary light houses, keeping a flame alive.
And in this spirit, though it is Jim Burns’s poetry I value most of all his vast output, he has kept on generously creating, if not a one- man counter culture, at least doing the work of a dozen or more people to that end. Still honouring the ‘forgotten’, whether expatriates or not, he reminds us in prose and verse of writers, musicians, artists, revolutionaries, and just hard-pressed unsung heroes from ordinary life. He produces countless short but wise reviews of new books, helping individual readers to see what is going on, writers to get a fair and shrewd response, and something like an intellectual community to recreate itself and stay in being, however tenuously.
In the same spirit he contributes tirelessly to little magazines, often as with Grosseteste Review I:I with poems and a couple of articles in the same issue. He is a generous upholder of the fabric by which artists of all sorts can feel themselves to be nourished. He has responded promptly and generously to requests for information and expressions of interest from countless inquirers into the many topics on which he is a mine of discriminating information.
In short, Jim Burns is a priceless asset to all of us who value all or any of the things he values, and want there still to be a life outside Waterstone’s, the academy, endless competitions and the metropolitan literary circuit. And above all he is a poet who, however displaced from any simple social beginnings, retains an unerring sense of the reality principle that makes much lauded contemporary poetry seem artificial and pointless by comparison.
Have I made Jim sound dull and worthy? Well, he never is. Informing everything he writes, and everything he does, is the rebellious joy of the teenager who stayed up half the night discovering be-bop, and who still loves it half a century later; who knows that even in a world of sobering tragedies and injustices, life is to be lived and enjoyed, and who is damn good at doing both.
Jim Burns at rest
- 10th Muse
- Angel Exhaust
- Blithe Spirit
- Brando's hat
- Brittle Star
- Cannon's Mouth, The
- Coffee House, The
- Dream Catcher
- Floating Bear, The
- French Literary Review, The
- Frogmore Papers, The
- Global Tapestry
- Grosseteste Review
- Homeless Diamonds
- Interpreter's House, The
- Journal, The
- Lamport Court
- London Magazine, The
- Modern Poetry in Translation
- Monkey Kettle
- Neon Highway
- New Welsh Review
- North, The
- Obsessed with pipework
- Oxford Poetry
- Painted, spoken
- Paper, The
- Pen Pusher Magazine
- Poetry Cornwall
- Poetry London
- Poetry London (1951)
- Poetry Nation
- Poetry Review, The
- Poetry Salzburg Review
- Poetry Scotland
- Poetry Wales
- Private Tutor
- Purple Patch
- Rain Dog
- Reach Poetry
- Review, The
- Rialto, The
- Second Aeon
- Seventh Quarry, The
- Smiths Knoll
- Strange Faeces
- Tabla Book of New Verse, The
- Tolling Elves
- Ugly Tree, The
- Wolf, The
- Yellow Crane, The